For Couples

For Couples

TWO BEAUTIFUL DEATHS

Mar 03

Crystal and Kevin share their memories of how palliative care made a huge difference to two persons they loved dearly: Crystal’s aged mother after her stroke and a close friend struck by advanced breast cancer.

CRYSTAL

I’ll never forget the evening Kevin and I received a phone call from my father, announcing that my mother had experienced a stroke and had been taken to the closest hospital. Up until that day, I was unaware of the significant decline in physical and mental functions that occur with a stroke. However, it didn’t take long for me to discover that the effects can be devastating. Over the next few weeks, as my beloved mother struggled to walk on her own, speak with clarity and heal, I came face to face with the difficulties of medical conditions that didn’t have a quick fix.  There was no cast for a broken limb, no antibiotic for bacterial disease, but rather a program of recovery that might or might not bring improved health.

Despair and Hope

As the weeks became months and the months became years, there were moments of despair and moments of hope. Whether a result of incompetent medical intervention, or simply the ravages of the stroke on an elderly woman, there never was a substantial recovery to her former self.  A partial healing left her wheelchair bound, with the ability to speak but with the inability to communicate effectively because of her damaged brain. As a family, we were simply happy to still have her with us and able to show her love and attention.

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Crystal and Kevin Sullivan

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Bringing Hope to Those who Have None

Feb 05

CRYSTAL
Ever since I was a young girl, I have enjoyed reading stories about the saints. Each saint has such a unique story to tell of how their lives were shaped by their love for Christ. Recently, I read a biography of St. Catherine of Siena, and was captivated by the struggles she faced in being faithful to the Church amidst the wars, plagues and schisms which threatened the people of her land. It occurred to me that, although she lived more than six hundred years earlier, many of the difficulties she faced are just as prevalent today. I experienced a great desire to learn more about her life, so that I could benefit from her experiences. It has been recorded that St. Catherine received supernatural assistance in her spiritual life, and was even given the gift of hearing the voice of Jesus speaking to her of His immense love for all of His creatures and of His desire for her to act lovingly on His behalf.
One story struck me in particular. It occurred at a time relatively early in her life, yet Catherine had already had a number of experiences of ecstasy and therefore had a deep understanding of Jesus’ love for all persons. By this time, she was already well known for her generosity in giving the best of her family’s food and clothing to the poor, often needing to smuggle it away because of the resistance she received. One cold winter’s day, she was praying in church when she was approached by a scantily clothed man, who asked her for relief from the cold. Not wanting to force him to come home with her, she took off some of the clothes she was wearing and gave them to him. But they were not enough to keep him warm, so he followed her home where she was able to find a few more items for his comfort. Finally the man realized that she had nothing left to give and he thanked her for her charity.

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Crystal and Kevin Sullivan

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SOCIAL MEDIA: GOOD & BAD, UGLY & BEAUTIFUL

Jan 04

KEVIN

As I draw near to the end of my sixth decade on this earth, I find myself approaching that point in life where I suspect many will arrive eventually—I am just about ready to stop trying to keep up with technology inspired innovations.  This is particularly true of communication advancements.  Just as I begin to discover platforms such as Facebook, my children alert me to the fact that Facebook is for old people and there are now three or four new and better ways to keep in touch with others. You know what? I am OK with being old and declaring that Facebook is the end of my social media journey.  I have to admit that my becoming a curmudgeon on social media has been a long time coming.

Years ago, just as I was retiring, I recall the younger marketing folks advising that, if our company wanted to be successful in the future, we were going to have to embrace this new wave of communication called ‘social media.’ The thought was that our markets were becoming saturated and our messages to consumers stale, so shifting our communication resources to social media would surely bring new life and growth to our aging brand. Frankly, I didn’t believe that merely changing how we said what we had always been saying was going to make that much difference in how people reacted to our efforts to attract more customers. However, being in Communications at the time, I was aware that there were times when different methods of communicating could make a big difference on how receptive a given audience might be.

“The medium is the message”

At the time I came to reflect on the words of a Canadian born Catholic communications guru by the name of Marshall McLuhan.  In the 1960’s, while writing on the power of the emerging medium of television, he coined the aphorism, “the medium is the message.” By that McLuhan meant that the medium chosen to convey messages shaped human behavior more than the messages themselves. Eventually, I became convinced of the truth of this, as I lamented how the advent of email had reshaped relationships between coworkers. Colleagues who for years had communicated frequently via telephone conversations were now more and more regularly communicating using the impersonal medium of emails.  While it was great to be able to communicate at any hour of the day or night, this cold and impersonal vehicle became its own form of tyranny. The spirit of team work and the culture of accountability became one of finger-pointing and blame laying, as the email streams recorded the journey of work from one desk to another. People were no longer team members; camps were formed.   I remembered lamenting the loss of a collegial culture and wondered if this new social media was going to become a positive force if it took hold.

Well, it would be hard to argue that social media has not taken hold in our world. I would venture to say that there are few individuals under the age of sixty who don’t have more than a few internet based social media tools that they use on a regular basis. I myself (well over sixty) have to admit to having five different applications on my cellular phone and two more on my computer. Is that a good thing? For me, the answer is probably yes. The applications I use help me to actually be better connected with family and friends than I would be if I had to rely on the telephone or letters and postcards. Many of the applications bring me information and insights that I wouldn’t otherwise have access to because I am too lazy to read and research on my own.

The Ugly and the Beautiful

Sure, there is bad that goes along with the good. The impersonal and inconsequential nature of social media emboldens many to share mean-spirited and divisive thoughts and opinions with alarming frequency.  I might even be willing to agree that, on the whole, much of the social media and many people’s addiction to it is not really a favorable development for society. Recently, I am becoming inclined to join that school of thought. The rampant, bitter and downright nasty commentaries on social media in a lead up to the November elections in the United States prompted me to swear off Facebook for several weeks. And when I came back after the elections were over, the tone and bitterness that has prevailed has me seriously considering a permanent departure.

However, as fate would have it, just a couple of days ago I happened upon a posting of a brief video message from Pope Francis on which he was encouraging Christians to use all means possible to spread the loving and compassionate message of the Gospel. I heard him saying “don’t let the medium get in the way of the message” because getting the message out is our primary responsibility. The Pope’s message helped me to remember that it is important to not let the medium become a distraction or to let it detract from the Good News we are called to share. As I reflected on the Popes’ encouragement, I began to appreciate the importance of focusing on what is important. Social media is neither good nor bad, just as communication itself is neither good nor bad. It is what gets communicated that can be judged to be good or bad.  In other words, social media is not the issue; it is merely a tool, one of many and one which can be very effective when used the right way with the right audience.

Permanent Challenge

Sharing the beauty and truth of our Catholic faith is a huge communications challenge in this day and age. Of course, there were different challenges in Christ’s time and throughout our Church’s history. The challenge can only be met by more fully understanding and appreciating the reality of what it means to be a child of God and then being empathetic and compassionate enough to help others understand what it would mean to them in their life. As we come to better understand the individuals or groups that could benefit from the Gospel, we will come to identify the communication or teaching method they will be most receptive to. Throughout the history of the Catholic faith—from the verbal sharing of the gospels, the use of sacred art, the distribution of the written word, to radio and television broadcasts and yes, even social media—our Church and its members have been finding ways to respond to the call to go forth and make disciples of all nations. While the Pope did not express it directly, his advice to us might be: ‘Whether you embrace social media or not, don’t forget there are lots of different ways we have used over the years to get the reality of God’s love into the hearts of the faithful. Listen to the needs of others and use whatever medium they are most likely to respond to.’  God’s message of love for all of His children will come through loud and clear to those whose ears are open and whose hearts are so inclined if we care enough to share in ways that most readily engage their souls.


CRYTAL AND KEVIN SULLIVAN

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Meaningful Gift-giving

Dec 05

“Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor 9:7)

This article looks at the practice of gift-giving on special occasions like Christmas, the motives behind our giving, and the best gifts we can give.

CRYSTAL

What does it mean to us when we hear that we are to be “cheerful givers?”  It seems there are many answers to that question, which all come down to the attitude behind the gift-giving. Are our gifts given with a sense of obligation, or so that we can be admired and considered generous, or out of a sincere desire to show our love and appreciation?

One aspect of giving which Kevin touched on lightly in last month’s article, is that it is putting gratitude into action through generous sharing. This can, of course, take many different forms. For example, back in 1990, our young marriage was going through a difficult patch and we attended a Worldwide Marriage Encounter retreat to get back on track. The retreat was so life-changing that we spent the next eleven years actively helping to be part of the organization’s presentation team, lead a local community of married couples and contribute financially to ensure that retreats would continue for others.  There was nothing that we would not do to show our gratitude to God and the ministry for the gift we had received. For us, as for many others, our gratitude led us to give of our time, talent and treasure. The attitude of gratitude can be a very profound impetus for giving.

Gratitude, of course, is not always the motivation. Unfortunately, there are times when we make obligatory purchases out of a sense of duty. Christmas gift-giving can sometimes fall into this category. The shops are filled ahead of time—especially in Western countries—encouraging the purchase of all types of options for lightening our wallets.  Every holiday partygoer is expected to bring a gift to the hosts. Every family member or friend attending a Christmas celebration receives a gift of some kind, whether or not they need or even want anything.  In the early years of our marriage, we would drive back to Kevin’s large immediate family with the trunk of our car bursting with gifts for each of his eight siblings, their spouses and their children.  No one who knew me at the time would say that my attitude toward the preparation it took to purchase and wrap the items would say, “Oh, isn’t she a cheerful giver?” I was stressed and most often just happy to find something that might possibly please the recipient. Over the years, gifts I have received from others have often been just as generic. Last year, frustrated with the obligatory aspect of Christmas gift-giving, I proposed a  “No gifts policy” which almost started a civil war between those family members who love giving gifts as a way to show their love for each other, and the other family members who were insisting that we all have too much stuff and let’s donate to a charity instead. It really brought out to me that for some people gifts are truly an important and meaningful way to express their love.  And I must admit that, on certain occasions, the gifts that I have received have been extremely touching and meaningful. I suppose the difference is that the person truly entered into the purest form of anticipating what I would enjoy and appreciate. Two examples pop to mind immediately: several years ago, my sister made a cookbook of all of our family’s favorite recipes beginning with our grandmother’s; the second was when my sister made me a bag to hold my sewing projects, made out of leftover material of outfits my mom had used to make our dresses when we were young. Both of these gifts are priceless and bring a smile to my face every time I use them.  The effort and the thoughtfulness are inherent in these examples. These gifts truly say “My sister loves me.”

At the opposite extreme is the person who gives a gift in order to be seen as generous and important. Unfortunately, this can be true whether the person is conscious of their motivations or not. This came to light last spring, at the wedding of the son of my dear friend Karen who had died a month earlier. Family and friends were still grieving and there was sadness over Karen’s absence in the festivities. Karen’s sister, who seems to frequently feel unappreciated, wanted to gift the young couple a framed picture of some local sports hero, and wanted to do so with a microphone and have it presented to them in front of all the wedding attendees. When the other family members prevented her from doing so, she was devastated and angry. It was sad to see how much she needed to be appreciated for her gift rather than focus on what was best for these newlyweds. I suppose the same could apply to a philanthropist who gives large sums of money to a hospital in order to have a wing of the building named after him, or to those who give only if it is possible to enjoy a tax benefit as a result. As generous as the monetary value of the gift might be, they are somehow tainted by the impurity of the motivation behind them.

Of course, not all gifts have a purchase price attached to them. There are times when our presence is the present. Whether it’s listening to a friend who is struggling with relationship issues, or babysitting so that a young mother can run errands without three children in tow, or sitting with a friend in the doctor’s office to help allay her fears, the gift of being present to another in their time of need is invaluable.  I remember fondly all the ‘gifts’ I received when I was undergoing cancer treatment. There were phone calls to cheer me, cards sent to encourage me and meals made to free me from the work of cooking. My beloved husband brought me the Eucharist on the days when my immune system was compromised, which was the greatest gift of all. As a result, all of memories of this time seemed to land on the blessings rather than the struggle of treatment.  It truly was adding God’s love to the actions of others and making them a divine gift.

KEVIN

As I read Crystal’s insights on gift-giving, it strikes me that growing in gift-giving can be a little bit like growing in holiness.  As a young boy I can remember wanting to give gifts that I liked without concern for whether the receiver would enjoy or need it. After going through periods of seeing gifts as an obligation when I had no money to buy them, I came to understand that giving might require sacrifice. Eventually  (perhaps after receiving the sixth or seventh coffee cup with pictures of our grandchildren printed on the outside) I have come to understand that the greatest gift-giving is that which is all about the recipient. What are his or her desires or needs? We don’t need to spend a lot of money if we know what is truly important to the ones we care about. And, finally, worth considering is that most meaningful gift which is not what might be given but in what we might have been withholding from a friend, family member or colleague. Reaching out to reconcile with someone who may have hurt us or slighted us and offering our desire to reestablish relationship can be a most powerful gift that costs us nothing other than a little swallowed pride.  May we always be on the lookout for ways we can share the gift of God’s love with family, friends and enemies alike.


CRYSTAL AND KEVIN SULLIVAN

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GRATEFUL? YES. GENEROUS? WELL…

NOV 01

KEVIN

As I write to you this month from the northern half of the United States, our autumn season is in full swing. The temperatures are dropping and daylight hours are shrinking.  As one drives through the countryside, farmers are gathering their harvest of corn and soybeans. Farm stands selling apples, pumpkins and squash seem to appear around every corner. The new life of Spring and the explosive growth of Summer are now manifested in the abundance that one cannot help but notice.  This season is marked by harvest festivals in many states throughout the region, much as it is in agricultural regions throughout the world.  We celebrate the grace of abundant food that should be adequate to sustain us through the long, cold winter ahead.

Thanksgiving Celebration in the US

In the United States, our harvest season culminates on the fourth Thursday of the month with the national holiday of Thanksgiving. The holiday has its roots in the earliest years of the settlement of what has become the United States. It commemorates the feast celebrated after the European pilgrims’ first harvest in the New World.  Fifty-three Pilgrims who survived difficult conditions feasted with some 90 Native Americans responsible for helping the foreigners to adapt their ways to their new surroundings.  The colonists were not only thankful to God for an abundant harvest but also grateful to the natives who generously shared their knowledge of the land and its ways, knowledge without which the colonists may not have survived their second winter in the New World.  Some nearly 400 years later, families, whether rich or poor, gather in homes all across the country to commemorate the first Thanksgiving and give thanks for the abundance they enjoy.

The Thanksgiving holiday is centered around the family meal, with a large roasted turkey as the star of the show.  The grand bird is surrounded by side dishes of all kinds and more than one delicious dessert. As the designated chef for the big day, my responsibility is to make sure that no one leaves hungry and that everyone gets the chance to enjoy one of his or her favorite dishes. The whole celebration cries out “Abundance!” (perhaps even over-indulgence.)  For many, Thanksgiving remains the favorite holiday of the year. For most of us it is permeated with a genuine and profound sense of gratitude for the blessings of family and friends. It is a day when we can deeply appreciate that which we have and not focus on what we might still want. The sense of gratitude is real and palpable. Invariably, no matter who leads it, the opening prayer asks for blessings on those who do not have adequate food or shelter.

We easily forget the poor

While the poor are with us in our prayers and in the spirit of gratitude that permeates our Thanksgiving celebration, I have come to realize that we can sometimes leave our concerns for them at the dinner table.  In the United States, the day after Thanksgiving has become the biggest shopping day of the year, contributing to the sense that we should continue to celebrate the privilege of excess.  In contrast, as I reflect on the gospel message, the appropriate response to blessing and grace, beyond mere gratitude, is to share with others who are in need.  I must not only feel grateful, I must act generously.  But for me, like for many, gratitude comes easily, but generosity is a lot more difficult. In fact our feelings of gratitude can even lead us into a place of comfort and complacency.  I can become content with regularly thanking God for my many blessings and forget those who are in need of my generosity.  I feel good about loving God but don’t feel compelled to show love of neighbour.  I am almost embarrassed as I reflect on how in our early years of marriage Crystal and I were often looking for soldiers, sailors or others who were far from home to be part of our family’s holiday celebrations. It seems that, as we prospered, our concern for those in need of a family dinner experience diminished.  Now we might contribute to dinners or other events for the hungry and the homeless, but we don’t invite them to our table. It strikes me that generosity with our excess is no substitute for sharing our blessed lives with others.

How about sharing our spiritual blessings?

It further strikes me that this notion of putting gratitude into action through generous sharing doesn’t apply only to material blessings.  As I have been blessed to grow in my faith, I am ever more grateful but ever more conscious of my responsibility to share the gift of faith with others.  The call of Jesus to go forth and make disciples of all nations is a personal mission I know I must actively live out.  As I come to appreciate the abundance of joy and peace promised to those who follow Christ, the more compelled I am to get to work.  It is not hard in this day and age to recognize spiritual poverty in our world.  I know God has richly blessed me with a wonderful Catholic faith and a dynamic and holy wife who shares that faith. Yet, I remain reticent to share that faith with others, even with my own family.  I judge that I don’t know enough and that I don’t practice what I might preach.  I let myself be comfortable with committing to get better at prayer, more regular in daily Mass attendance and seeking reconciliation. I allow myself the space to imagine that if I will spend more time in front of the Blessed Sacrament in adoration and commit to a regular morning prayer routine, then I will be ready to evangelize.  If I get holier, maybe then I will get more generous.  I suspect it is fear that keeps me from sharing what is perhaps the greatest gift I have to give anyone.  If I have come to understand about how deeply God loves me and how He desires to be united with all of His children, how can I remain silent?  If by voicing my faith I can draw even one soul closer to Christ, why would I shy away? Yet I do. So my prayer this Thanksgiving is for myself and for all of us to be thankful to God for all of the many gifts, material or spiritual, that He has so abundantly bestowed on us and to have the strength and the courage to generously share them with those we encounter who are in need of His loving goodness.

 

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CRYSTAL AND KEVIN SULLIVAN

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Each Other’s Teachers

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How the Young and the Old Learn from Each Other

CRYSTAL

As a regular reader of the Catholic magazine Magnificat, I have appreciated many aspects of the monthly publication, including summaries of the lives of little known saints, daily mass readings, as well as reflections relating to the Scriptures from both lay and religious contributors. This month, I was surprised and amused by a different type of introduction to the monthly edition, as presented by Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P. He shared an anecdote that he found online:

 “A kindergarten teacher was observing her classroom of kids while they were drawing. She would occasionally walk around to see each child’s work. As she got to one little girl who was working diligently, she asked what the drawing was. The girl replied, “I’m drawing God.”  The teacher paused and said, “But no one knows what God looks like.”  Without missing a beat, or looking up from her drawing, the girl replied, “They will in a minute.”

No Good Bye

This story of a little girl’s confidence delighted me! It may be that her response resonated with me in a particular way because Kevin and I currently have the joy of living under the same roof with our three grandchildren ages 6, 4 and 2. As we daily experience the world from their perspective and hear their questions and responses to matters of faith, I have come to better appreciate that in their simplicity of thought, they may well have as much or more appreciation for the things of faith than I do.

For example, about a year ago, I was leaving daily mass with our young grandson and encouraged him to genuflect to say ‘good-bye’ to Jesus. He responded simply that he didn’t need to say good-bye because Jesus is always with him. Indeed! I stood corrected.

Why Mosquitoes?

On another occasion, I sat in the bedroom with our granddaughter during a violent thunderstorm that had frightened her. As we whiled away the time, she started asking questions about what I did every morning as I sat in my chair in my prayer room. When I answered that I was talking to God, she asked if He ever talked back. I responded that He did, but not in a physical voice, but in ways that came up in the different things that I would read about in my reflection book, or in thoughts that I had.  She then asked me to please take a question to God that had been troubling her: “Why did God make mosquitoes?”  I promised her to ask Him and after I quietly assured her that it was safe to go to sleep I snuck downstairs and googled all the possible good things there were about mosquitoes. J

I am trying to convey through both of these examples how absolutely privileged I am to be reminded of some basics of the faith from our young grandchildren. I am delighted by Joe’s absolute conviction of Jesus’ ubiquitous presence, and Grace’s trust that God has a purpose for all things in His creation. In fact, not only am I delighted; I am challenged to enter into my relationship with the Divine in a more child-like manner, with great confidence and trust.

Learning from a Child

Child-like trust has been a virtue for which I have been praying for a few years. It seems that God is answering my prayers by sending down that grace through the lives of our young grandchildren. When I see our little ones exhibit characteristics of faithfulness, such as humility or trust, it makes it easier for me to imitate those virtues. As an adult, it can be easy to fall into complacency in spiritual matters and take for granted the power of God alive in the world.  For example, we can routinely enter into the marvelous happening of the Mass we attend, and rather than worshipping in awe, we yawn our way through the celebration. We might participate by sitting, standing and parroting back the appropriate responses, but then leave the church with no appreciation for what is arguably the most remarkable event that takes place in the world today.

A contrast to that type of detached experience is one I had just this last month as I attended a daily Mass with our four-year-old granddaughter. Sitting in the front row, she had a clear view of the priest during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. As she watched and listened to the priest saying the prayers at the altar, she started whispering, “Is that bread Jesus yet?”  “No, not yet” I responded. She asked several more time and each time received the same reply. Finally, when the altar bells were rung, she asked again, “Is it Jesus now?” “Yes! It is Jesus!” I answered, and felt an incredible surge of love and gratitude well up in my heart.

Yes, I have ‘believed’ in transubstantiation for years. Yes, I have prayed for greater faith to bolster my belief in the Eucharist. But on this day, as my little one was in awe that NOW Jesus was really truly present, it was an even greater understanding. Four-year-old Grace has unwittingly taught me that I should never take for granted the incredible gift of the supernatural presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist. She trusts in what she cannot see or understand.  I will continue to pray that I will have that same childlike trust and to see that God is leading me to greater faithfulness through the people he places in my life, including its youngest members.

What Children Learn from Us

Of course, as adults we should be open to both learning valuable lessons from children as well as passing along the wisdom we have gleaned over the years. For example, our little Joey would not have known that God is always with him had he not been told this again and again by his mother.  Grace would not have had the inclination to ask God about mosquitos had she not seen me every morning, sitting in my ‘prayer chair’ and conversing with God.  And as much as our words have an impact on how others come to know the faith, our actions will inevitably speak even clearer. How many people have come to associate Christian faithfulness with Mother Teresa, perhaps not reading about or understanding her motivation for her selfless actions in ministering to the poor, but being drawn to the good will and love inherent in her actions?

When I read news reports about the decline of morals in young people, or hear people lament how self-absorbed and materialistic the young generation is, I wonder if there are simply not enough good examples of people who are living differently from the values of the secular world. And of course, we must always begin evaluating the answer to this question by examining our own lives.  How do my actions demonstrate an awareness of God’s presence and love and my desire to bring that love into the world?

Pure acts of holiness are hard to ignore.  They shine brightly all on their own. Perhaps for most of us they are only observed in venues like our own homes or workplace, but sometimes they even make it to the world stage.  Mother Teresa’s exhortation to “do small things with great love” is perhaps the best means to live the faith and teach the faith to others. The beauty of her advice is that we can all put it into practice. We don’t need a degree or a title or money. Whether we are adults or children, we can accept her challenge and put it into practice, learning from each other and encouraging each other and thereby making the world a better place for future generations.

 

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LEARNING FROM CHILDREN

Sep 14

KEVIN

One of the benefits of retirement is the ability to attend Mass on a daily basis. As should be expected, the graces flowing from the Eucharist are nourishing and strengthening. However, another special grace that I have received has come about as I become ever more appreciative of the brief homilies our parish priests are willing to bless us with each day. Each of our priests seems to share something different in terms of perspective.  Whether it’s the pastor’s efforts to help us to understand Church teaching and its history, or the retired pastor’s wonderful way of helping us to understand the transforming power of Christ’s love present in our daily lives, each of our priests encourages and challenges me to think differently and to seek a better understanding of who Jesus is and who He wants me to be.

Humble as Children?

The latest thought provoker to join us is our new associate pastor, assigned to our parish fresh from seminary. Although young in years, he is obviously very wise and learned. He has already demonstrated the ability to encourage me to take a fresh look at how I see the world, sometimes by saying things that at first blush don’t seem to make sense to me.

In one of his homilies last week he was reflecting on the virtue of humility. He called on us to be “as humble as children.” My immediate reaction was “What? Children humble? That doesn’t compute with my experience at all.”  As I reflected on our current situation of living with our three little grandchildren ages 2,4 and 6, I was having a hard time to use the word “humble” as describing their behavior. While these little ones are absolutely delightful and well-behaved children, at least the 2 and 4 year olds would like to have you believe the universe should revolve around them. That’s not my idea of humility.

But knowing that Jesus loved the little children and the fact that Father Robinson was usually so insightful, I began to contemplate the question of how I might actually see our little darlings as God’s humble little creatures. As I thought about their daily existence, it didn’t take long for my mind to be filled with examples of how dependent they were for absolutely everything. I thought of their dear mother who cooks every meal, cleans their clothes and is constantly comforting them from even the smallest of physical or emotional injury. They need to ask permission for the food they want to eat, the times they may play outside, and when they are going to be told to clean up, bathe, and go to bed.  It quickly became apparent to me that their humility has nothing to do with ego and everything to do with dependence. These children need their dear mother for almost everything. As they get a little older you can see they desire independence yet recognize that they can’t necessarily do much on their own. They may not realize it but their need is real and their need is pure.

We Can’t Go it Alone

“I need” is a most humbling statement. It tells us at some level that we are not equipped to handle whatever circumstance we are facing. “I need” means that I must reach out to one who is superior to myself in knowledge, skills, wisdom or ability to work through one challenge or another.  For little children, humility then becomes an ever-present reality. In that way they truly have it over us.  The world would have us believe that humility is a function of ego, not of reality. We are encouraged in Western culture to pursue a positive self esteem and total self-reliance. Wow! Good luck with that.  While there is merit in moving in that general direction, setting forth such an unattainable goal of fierce independence will inevitably lead us to sadness, frustration and perhaps even despair as we come to the inevitable realization that we can’t go it alone.  There should be little wonder why so many more people are seeking counseling or even contemplating suicide these days.

We Need Support

Life can be challenging at times. For some, the challenges can go on for a long period of time. At some time in our lives, we all have had the experience of coming to depend on one thing or another. Some dependencies can be positive, like the example of children depending on their parents for proper care. Others can become dependent on another person, some on drugs, alcohol, pornography or other addictive practices to help to face day to day life.

Ultimately, those that look for dependence in this way often find that all of those things ultimately fail to provide the peace they are seeking for their souls.  Fortunately for us, our Catholic faith provides us with the means to live a humble life in a healthy way, where we believe that we can depend on God for our needs. By turning our life over to Him, we can declare our real and pure need like God’s little children knowing that He will always bring us a measure of comfort for that which troubles us. Sure, as adults, we can feed ourselves, look after our hygiene and move about in the world.  Yet we are not immune to the pains, struggles, and disappointments that are an inevitable part of life on earth. Just like our little grandchildren who run to their mother for comfort, we need to run to our Father in heaven in our times of need.

So I have to say a little prayer of thanksgiving to Father Robinson for his valuable lesson in humility. Not only did he challenge me to think differently about our little grandchildren, but he helped me to see how I need to look at all of my brothers and sisters in the world.

People Need Us

I have come to recognize that the world would have us look at others in the context of their wants and their utility to us. How often this leads to the attitude that these ‘others’ are not deserving of our assistance. Yet in the spirit of humility and true Christian love, we are invited to see their expression of need and respond with generous and compassionate hearts and hands.

Much as I can’t resist the pleading hands of my four-year-old granddaughter who needs to be picked up so that she can see what’s going on at the altar over the top of the heads of all the grownups, I have to be more open to the true needs of the poor, the immigrants  and the vulnerable.  I am learning that rather than hearing them say “I deserve” or “I have a right,” I need to be open to understand that all they are humbly seeking to communicate is “ I need help.” When we get down on our knees we know that our God will never withhold His grace of mercy and healing when we humbly approach Him as one of His children with our true and pure needs. In my prayer, I ask for the graces to live as a true child of God and follow His lead in showing mercy and kindness to those in our world today who are in need.

 

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For Couples

A Stranger’s Life-Giving Gift

August 1

This inspiring first person account is the story of parish members who got involved to save a critically ill parishioner—and how the donor turned out to be a person from another country who wished to remain anonymous!

CRYSTAL

About ten years ago, a dear friend was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphona, a cancer that starts in white blood cells called lymphocytes, which are part of the body’s immune system.  The news was shocking on several fronts: Sue was a young fifty-year-old; she was in peak physical condition, exercising actively her entire life; and her lifestyle, including eating a healthy diet and being a non-smoker, would be considered ideal.  Yet the diagnosis was irrefutable—and frightening.

After consulting with the best physicians in the country, she realized that she had very few options. The normal plan of chemotherapy and other treatments seemed to have no impact on this aggressive form of the disease. When the doctors concluded that there was a very low chance of survival unless an extremely active treatment course was taken, they recommended intense chemotherapy to kill all the white blood cells in her body, then locating a bone marrow transplant from a compatible donor to create new, healthy cells. The risk was clear—with no white blood cells in her body, any minor infection would kill her. And the chance of her body rejecting the bone marrow was extremely high…

 

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Crystal and Kevin Sullivan

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For Couples

We Need Potters More than Teachers

JULY 1

KEVIN

Over the past year, Crystal and I have had the opportunity to observe our daughter providing homeschool education for our six-year old grandson. It has been delightful to not only witness Joey’s amazing educational advances, but also to see the marvelous interaction between mother and son.  As a result of a pending divorce, the prospects for continued homeschooling for her children is being challenged. The suitability of our daughter, a university educated, English literature major’s ability to teach is being called into question. The prospect of being forced to place the children into floundering public schools is not only disconcerting but has prompted me to reflect on education in general and the role of teachers specifically.  What does it take to be a good teacher anyway?

Obviously children need to learn in order to prosper in life. Reading, writing and arithmetic skills are essentials for every child and serve as the fundamental basis of any educational system.  Even the least trained educator, with the aid of an established curriculum, should be able to handle the task of helping a young child become functionally literate and learn basic life skills. But in this day and age, the emphasis in the West is on educating the next generation of mathematicians, scientists and computer gurus. Admittedly, the educational rigor and teaching skills necessary to develop in-depth knowledge of various subjects and the ability to apply principles to real world problems may require additional expertise and more highly skilled teachers. In fact, I am very beholden to those teachers who have had the patience to bring “slower” students like myself through the intricacies of advanced math, science and language. Their skill and dedication is to be commended.

Who are the Great Teachers?

However, there are lots of teachers, many of them in this day and age who happen to be homeschoolers, who are very capable of passing along basic knowledge and skills to students.  Is being a good teacher enough? What does it take to be a great teacher? When I watch our daughter… when I think of the special teachers I have had in Catholic schools and at the public university… what is it that I see that highlights greatness? What I have experienced beyond the mere act of learning is the life-shaping influence that is at work when we experience a great teacher. Whenever I hear someone reflect on the experience of their overall education, inevitably they will share the opinion that one particular teacher had a profound influence on who they are as a person. So, the great teacher is the one whose interest in the student doesn’t stop at their learning but focuses on their future. In other words, the great teacher is not focused merely on education but also on formation.

 

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CRYSTAL AND KEVIN SULLIVAN

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For Couples

Retreats for Women Prisoners

JUNE 5

Crystal shares with our readers what made her join a retreat team for women prisoners, and some of the heart-rending stories she came across.

“Oh my goodness, why in the world are you going into prison to give a retreat? Aren’t you afraid for your own safety?”  This has been the usual response I receive from well meaning friends and family members when I tell them that I have joined a group of women who present weekend retreats within the prison walls to women whose sentences range from one year to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole.

The Terrible World of Prison

To be honest, when a friend of mine initially invited me to join the prison ministry, my first reaction was guarded.  In our society, prisoners are a group of people for whom most people feel little sympathy. There is a general attitude that they deserve whatever unpleasant conditions they experience while incarcerated. It is easy for most of us to feel superior to the imprisoned, because we judge we would not have ever committed the crimes for which they are being held. Movies that portray the rough, brutal manner of prisoners continue the perception that they are of a lower class of human beings, without conscience or morals. How easily we all make the mistake of condemning people without realizing the individual circumstances that result in their imprisonment.  We who have no direct experience with anyone who is imprisoned can allow fear of violence and anger at brutality to keep our distance from ministering to them. We can think of prisoners as ‘them’, not as our brothers and sisters in Christ. How quickly my eyes were opened once I took the time to learn the truth.

The United States has the dubious distinction of being the leader in the number of people being held in prison, with 2.3 million people incarcerated. This sad statistic doesn’t reflect the individual causes of incarceration: prisons and jails are literally overflowing with poor, uneducated people, about half of whom suffer from mental health or substance abuse problems. Once I started reading about the true conditions in prison, I learned other alarming facts: “We’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. We’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole…We’ve given up on rehabilitation, education and services for the imprisoned because providing assistance to the incarcerated is apparently too kind and compassionate. We’ve institutionalized policies that reduce people to their worst acts and permanently label them ‘criminal,’ ‘murderer,’ ‘rapist,’ ‘thief,’ ‘drug-dealer’—identities they cannot change regardless of the circumstances of their crimes or any improvement they might make in their lives.” (Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson)

First Visit to the Prison

As I read these words, I was immediately reminded of the famous quote by Ricardo Sanchez: “The devil knows your name but calls you by your sin: God knows your sin but calls you by your name. “ As a sinner who will be forever grateful for the mercy of God in my own life, I was hooked. I joined the Kairos prison ministry and began preparations for my first retreat.

I will admit that when I entered prison for the first time I was initially a bit nervous.  As our group walked through the guard station and onto the grounds, I heard the click of the gates locking behind us and saw the barbed wire looming above.  As we walked through the prison campus, I noticed large groups of women being led by guards from one location to another. Here was my first surprise! Dressed in identical clothing of white shirts and blue pants, many were young, normal looking women who could just have easily been walking to their next high school gym class. Many waved and shouted hellos to us, knowing that we were coming as ‘friends’ for the retreat that only a few were lucky enough to be given permission to attend.

Once inside the gym, women started trickling in, looking for a place to sit. As I started to talk with them, I realized that they were more nervous than I was! I tried as much as possible to make them feel welcome before the retreat began, thanking them for coming and taking a chance on us old ‘church ladies.’  How quickly suspicion and fear melts away when we can sit with each other at a table and share a smile.

Stories of Pain and Hope

Throughout the next two days, eight of the retreat leaders stood up and witnessed how God’s love and mercy had changed their lives. One elderly woman, Ann, shared the pain of being sexually abused by her father beginning when she was seven years old, then being “shared” with his friends to pay for his alcohol addiction. Another woman, Mary, spoke of the grief she experienced when her father abandoned the family; her mother and siblings fell into a life of extreme poverty. Susan spoke of the shame she felt when her boyfriend coerced her into having an abortion, and the deep regret she felt for having done so once she became a Christian. Delilah shared that as a teenager she became hooked on drugs, which led her to into petty theft and imprisonment. One by one, these “church ladies” stepped up and shared that their lives had been filled with abuse, poverty, addictions and bad decisions.  But each story was also filled with the eventual awareness that God was there all along, loving them and giving them the grace to forgive themselves and those who harmed them.

As the retreat continued, the prisoners became more and more willing to share their own stories. Many had suffered both physical and sexual abuse, most had lived in poverty, and many were incarcerated for crimes that occurred while they were addicted to drugs or alcohol. Jane shared her story of how she was with her boyfriend who made a stop to buy drugs.  While she waited in the backseat of the car, she heard shots which she later learned left two men dead. She was serving thirty years in prison for “her part” in the crime.  Christina shared that she became hooked on drugs given to her by her father before he sexually assaulted her, and she later turned to prostitution to support her habit. Donna admitted that after she became addicted to heroine, she neglected her children and was sentenced to prison for endangering their lives. Their stories were all heart-breaking and sadly similar. They were raised in an environment filled with danger and with little or no exposure to faith.

By the end of the retreat, many of the women state that being imprisoned was in fact a blessing from God, as it was there that they had the opportunity to come clean from their addictions. Not only that, but for some it was the first time in their lives that they were exposed to reading the Bible, attending church services as well as being with other women who acted as Christian mentors for them.

In the closing ceremony, the retreat leaders form a circle and sing to all of the prisoners this song; “You are loved, you are beautiful. You are a gift from God, Love’s own creation. You are a gift to everyone… you are loved, God danced the day you were born.”  On that first retreat and all the others I have attended since, tears flow freely from every face, some tremendously moved that for the first time in their life, they truly understand that they are loved by God and by others, unconditionally. We exchange hugs and promises for prayers, believing that our sisters in Christ now understand that they are accepted and loved, by us and by God.

A few months ago, an elderly lady approached me in tears at the end of the retreat, saying, “Thank you so much for coming. In here, we are ‘offenders’ and are called by a number. You loved us and called us by our names.” I think that’s God way of winking at me and saying…. Carry on!


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